Elective course helps new students enhance their college experience

Esther Alexandre and John Haller, vice president of enrollment management, teach a First-Year Directions course on Wednesday, Aug. 24. Photo: Matthew Rembold/University of Miami
By Jenny Hudak

Esther Alexandre and John Haller, vice president of enrollment management, teach a First-Year Directions course on Wednesday, Aug. 24. Photo: Matthew Rembold/University of Miami

Elective course helps new students enhance their college experience

By Jenny Hudak
First-Year Directions, a class designed to support first-year and transfer students at the University of Miami as they navigate their college journey, provides campus resources and best practices to help the undergraduates succeed.

New faces, new city, new school. The first year of college can be an overwhelming experience for many. One course at the University of Miami sets out to offer some ease.

First-Year Directions (FYD), designed for first-semester, new and transfer students, tackles many of the issues students face while assimilating to college.

The weekly class is intended to equip students with the skills and promote the positive attitudes needed to transition into the academic community and succeed in their higher education journey at the University of Miami.

“When we were creating this course, we wanted to be very intentional about getting students started on the right foot at the University,” said Darby Plummer, director of the ’Cane Success Center. “First-Year Directions is our way of getting students to connect with each other to build a community amongst their peers, amongst students who are studying the same subjects that they are studying, to help them connect to the campus as a whole and to South Florida.”

The 50-minute class tackles various topics, giving new students tips and tricks for navigating and utilizing campus resources, promoting health and wellness, implementing study skills and goals setting strategies, and highlighting diversity and inclusion.

Each course is taught by a facilitator, typically an advisor in their school or college, or a University staff member who is very well connected on campus and passionate about helping new students. The facilitators are paired with upperclassmen teaching assistants, who draw on their own experiences as students to help their new peers.

The classes are small, typically less than 20 students and grouped based on the student’s major or school. This allows for classmates to connect with peers who they likely will be taking classes with for the following semesters, helping them to forge relationships.

“Students can expect to develop this community within their school or college, connect with similar aged people going through the same thing,” said Nicole Maarraoui, associate director for student retention and programs. “FYD creates a more laid-back setting to discuss important topics and projects like creating their four-year degree plan, discussing their curriculum, or finding student organizations they may be interested in.”

The class was created in 2019 with the goal of boosting retention beyond the first year at the University, which is the most critical time of a student’s college years.

The class, which started with just two sections, has now grown to 71 classes offered throughout six schools and colleges at the University.

Esther Alexandre, a senior studying computer engineering, took an FYD course during her first semester at the University in 2019.

“First-Year Directions really pushed me out of my comfort zone to explore different opportunities on campus and discover things I didn’t even know about,” Alexandre recalled. “I didn’t know about the different student organizations at the University until we talked about it during class.”

During her semester, Alexandre discovered and applied to join the Homecoming Executive Committee. Now, in her senior year, after honing her skills as a leader, she serves as the committee’s vice chair.

“This course really shaped my future at UM,” she said. Alexandre rejoined the FYD course as a teaching assistant, guiding and inspiring fresh cohorts of new students to reach their potential.

Like Alexandre, Sarah Sluka, a junior from Titusville, Florida, returned as a teaching assistant for a First-Year Directions course after feeling particularly inspired by her facilitator, Maarraoui. This semester, she is focused on empowering students on their degree tracks to succeed.

“It has been equally fun and empowering to build relationships with the members of my FYD section and to offer advice on a range of topics from how to pass Biology 150 to how to deal with a tough roommate situation,” Sluka said. “Working as a teaching assistant has made me much more confident in myself and my abilities and has also made me fall in love with the University of Miami again through fresh eyes.”

Stephanie Fleitas, associate director for the Department of Orientation and Commuter Student Involvement, has facilitated FYD courses for transfer students since 2020. Fleitas’s focus remains on the transfer student experience, which can slightly differ from that of a first-year college student.

“For transfer and first-year students, it’s easy for them to feel like they’re just one of many. In this intimate environment, they’re one of 20 in a class. It helps them focus on what they need,” Fleitas said. “Even after this class, it gives students that connection to our office, to other resources on campus, to the other transfer students in their class, and to the teaching assistant and transfer assistants who support them. If nowhere else, I hope that here students feel that sense of unity and like they’re a part of the University.”

First-Year Directions is not a required course for any student but is highly encouraged. The one-credit class does not count toward degree completion. Students interested in enrolling in First-Year Directions can do so through CaneLink or speak with their academic advisor. The last day to add a class is Aug. 31.